Wherefore Art Thou? An Album Inspired by Nick Hornby’s Juliet, Naked

How Perry Serpa made a real tribute album to a fictional classic album.

It was 2009 and I—one-part NYC singer/songwriter, one-part music PR guy—had just read a great book: Nick Hornby’s latest, Juliet, Naked, a story about a world-weary rock star who had disappeared from view following the critical success of his hit album, a classic, tortured opus called Juliet. Hornby’s book described the (fictional) 10-song album in enough detail for me to try and take the tunes off the page and into reality by writing and recording them. I was hoping to establish a sort of unsolicited co-writing dynamic with the author.

The result, Wherefore Art Thou? Songs Inspired By Nick Hornby’s Juliet, Naked has not only been prompting kind words and enthusiasm from the media on both sides of the Atlantic, but Hornby himself even approves, saying: “Magnificent. I love every song, words and music. It works completely on its own terms and sounds complete in a way that very few albums do anymore.”

It wasn’t just me: I recruited a number of musicians to help, including Scott McCaughey, Laura Cantrell (who duets with me on the country-tinged “Dirty Dishes”), Edward Rogers and Don Piper, Aja Warren, and my 16-year-old son Aidan, who plays lead guitar on “And You Are?” and “Blood Ties,” among others.

Here’s my attempt to explain how and why it all happened.

This endeavor may have been self serving, but not in any manner that could’ve been mistaken for ambition, at least to the extent that I felt it would be tantamount to making me shitloads of money or anything. Much to the chagrin of the people who know me best, I don’t think anything I’ve ever decided to do in life seemed to point in that direction anyway.

When I started writing this record, I was bored stiff. I had spent much of the latter aughts crafting what would become a 40-song plus, four-album series for my band, The Sharp Things, and I was trying to give the creative jags that tend to hit me radically, sporadically, and volcanically, a rest. It was no use, though. I darted around constantly, and sometimes aimlessly, looking for something cool to get involved with. I had a breathable moment, I was finally taking things in, watching movies that friends referenced with annoying regularity. Listening to music that I’d been embarrassed to admit I’d never heard, going to shows, binge-watching and catching up on my reading.

By 2009, I was already a massive Nick Hornby fan. High Fidelity was an early fave, which made me reach back to Fever Pitch, which inspired loved ones to get me Songbook for Christmas one of those years. In 2007 though, I became complicit. A complicit fan, if there’s such a thing, when I wrote and recorded a song called “The Jumpers” that kicked off TST’s 3rd album, A Moveable Feast. If you know Nick’s canon, it’s not that hard to deduce, given the title, that it was based on A Long Way Down, his 2005 novel about four desperate and disparate souls who meet on the roof of a tower block on New Year’s Eve, all sharing the intention of jumping off. (Spoiler: They don’t.) Instead, they become a reluctant support group. I loved the novel—Nick’s intuitive handling of each of its four protagonists/anti-heroes, and where they all go from that point, the most depressing of all holidays.

I had sent “The Jumpers” to Nick, and then enough time had gone by that I had forgotten I’d done so, but then coincidentally, I was in London some six months later and while sitting in the smoke-filled lobby of the Columbia Hotel, I received an email. Sender: Nick Hornby. Loosely paraphrased, it said, “I listened, and I love the song, so I went and downloaded the rest of your catalog…” Ahem. I know myself. This sort of encouragement is freaking dangerous.

Anyway, a worthwhile digression…

For several years now, I’ve had this idea for a film. It has a title and a basic premise, but that’s it. It’s called Perfect Pop Song, and it is/will be/may never, ever be, essentially, a movie about a song that we never actually hear. Instead, we only see the reactions of the characters who have the privilege of hearing it. We see their bliss, delight, jealousy, greed. The film, when it is finally made, will stand as a tribute to the awesome power of a good song, sort of akin to Monty Python’s “Killer Joke” sketch (go look it up, you’ll die laughing).

So, back to 2009, when I read Juliet, Naked, there was an allure beyond just the fan kick of another Nick Hornby opus. There was the tractor beam of potentially more creation. A great story, no doubt, and two central characters with whom I could relate: Tucker Crowe, the once-tortured, almost famous rocker who refuses to remain in light after a bad spell with a married scenester, and Duncan, the hyper-fan blogger who neglects his suffering girlfriend, Annie, to perpetually swoon over Crowe’s short but classic canon, the object of his obsession. But it’s (the idea of) Crowe’s swansong, “Juliet,” that, as with Duncan, cast a spell on me. It’s what made me read it again, this time with purpose. Nevermind the “Naked” part, Hornby’s keen descriptions of these “original” 10 tracks, some specific enough to have offered us readers actual couplets, and some just titles under an oversized blanket of diverse literate and musical influences, was enough for me to wonder what it would be like to hear them. You give me Blood On The Tracks, Tunnel Of Love, Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Camus, Pinter, Johnny Cash, Beckett, Dolly Parton, Shelley, the Book of Job, and Gram Parsons, and you had me at Blood. I figured since “Juliet” had no musical companion, I should write one.

Lofty indeed, especially considering the fact that I had to pen something that lived up to its “classic album” status, but like most writers of anything, you can’t get anything done if you live through the eyes of those who are presumably watching you do it. You have to harness a sort of ignorance, an abandon of all of those ears and eyes and mouths and words, past, present, and future, and just get to fucking work. And so I did.

I can’t remember what I started with. I suppose it would be easy enough to figure it out, but I feel like those 10 tracks gestated in my mind simultaneously for years. Maybe it was “And You Are?” as it’s the very first song on the album, a song from which Nick offers the line, “They told me talking to you would be like chewing barbed wire with a mouth ulcer,” but it was the jump off for the rest of it. Later, Scott McCaughey would voice the tune, chosen in part because he is a great singer and, because his band, The Minus 5, is namechecked in Nick’s (fictional) Juliet tribute record, Wherefore Art Thou? from which I would adopt the title of this record. So, yes: It’s the fictional tribute album of the fictional classic album from the book that takes its title from the fictional album of demos of the original album. It couldn’t thicken any further if it had gout. However, when I realized that it would be a bit difficult to get Coldplay, the only other band mentioned in the novel, I decided to sail in a different direction while still keeping good company. So, I asked a number of my highly talented friends to join me. Among them, Aja Warren, with whom I tango on “Adultery,” Laura Cantrell who is the Dolly to my George Jones on “Dirty Dishes,” Edward Rogers and Don Piper who voiced “The Better Man,” Ron Raymond who played steel guitar on “Adultery” and “and my 16 year old son Aidan, who played guitar on “Blood Ties” and “And You Are?” My bass playin’ traveling buddy, James Pertusi helped me record and master it.

Throughout the process, my main fixation was following the novel. At the time, there was no film in the works. And I wasn’t about to start emailing Nick with specific questions. I lived alone with this book, so I listened to what it was telling me. At first, as pretentious as it sounds, I tried to get inside Tucker’s head, to put myself into the character. I’m actually one of those songwriters who finds doing that far easier than spilling my guts all over the place, angry and unrefined. Ick. But the wonderful thing about a project such as this is that I found that all of Nick’s words, the poetry behind his difficult and broken main character, the inspiration and yes, the agony, turned out to be a springboard for, well, spilling my own guts all over the place. As a writer, you really don’t have your passport until you’ve been crushed like Tucker Crowe. You have no license until you’ve done the wrong thing and struggled to make it right. Until you’ve called her 20 times in one day. Until you could swing from love to hate and back again in a moment. Until you could recognize that you’re truly the worst thing that has ever happened to her, but you’re still convinced there’s no one better. Full of tragic contradiction. Sure, you could fake it. This was initially an exercise in faking it, but in the end my experience in writing this music is really the found union of an imperfect protagonist and my very imperfect self. And from Fever Pitch to How To Be Good to Juliet to Funny Girl, isn’t finding the “you” in it what we all love so much about the work of Nick Hornby?

Wherefore Art Thou? Songs Inspired by Nick Hornby’s Juliet, Naked is available now.

(Photo Credit: Margaret Gaspari)

Perry Serpa is a NYC singer/songwriter/music maker. He’s fronted the symphonic rock band, The Sharp Things, for the past 20 years and he’s also done orchestral arrangements for other artists, including TV On The Radio. Serpa is a long time music publicist, as well, having worked with Beastie Boys on the Tibetan Freedom Concerts, David Byrne, Sean Lennon, Record Store Day, and a lot of other good stuff you’d know, or not. Serpa has four children and lives in Queens. Wherefore Art Thou? Songs Inspired By Nick Hornby’s Juliet, Naked is his first solo album.

(Photo Credit: Margaret Gaspari)